The Future Of Youth Ministry - Reframeyouth

The Future Of Youth Ministry

A few weeks ago, I was in a sanctuary with many youth pastors at the Forum of Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. It’s one of my favorite times each year when I get to sit in the same space with experts and professors who have dedicated their lives to the theology and or practice of youth ministry. The theme was Craft: The Future of Youth Ministry. We spent several hours over a few days sharing stories and experiences of how youth ministry is constantly changing and we are in the place where we must redesign what youth ministry looks like. All of us located across the country are dealing with the same challenges. One of those challenges is the need for volunteers. Churches are struggling to get the same engagement of volunteers post-pandemic that they once had. For instance, we've seen a decrease in volunteers willing to work directly with youth due to concerns about their effectiveness in working with students. This is a significant shift that we need to address.

Also, many churches have shifted to hybrid worship styles, and virtual worship has become an option for families. Although some leaders may feel it’s hurting youth ministry, I empathized with a parent last year when she told me you don’t understand the struggle it takes to get three small kids ready to get to church early on a Sunday morning and that virtual worship is sometimes a saving grace for them. Additionally, more families have their students participating in many high-performing and achieving activities that either overlap church service times or feel the need for a sabbath or a break. In this gathering of youth practitioners, although we didn’t come up with the answers to our challenges, most of us understood that we must redesign how we do ministry to accommodate the needs of families who may not come to the sanctuary week to week. Youth ministry can no longer be extensive programming that requires families to go to the four walls of the church several times a week. We must look at more inclusive options while finding ways to bring the scriptures to life through service and outreach. 

I met with one of my college students while at Princeton, and she told me I was not connected to a church community while away. At the same time, at school, she and her best friend have begun to create spiritual practices that keep them centered on their relationship with God and being accountable to one another. As we lean into this new age of ministry, it will be critical that we listen to young people more than we had before and begin to learn from them what it is that they need. In one of my workshop sessions, which was a group of veteran youth workers who had experience from 7-40 years, we landed on a few practical points to focus on in the years to come. One of those points was that we must move from entertaining to empowering and from empowering to sharing power. This collectively designed group statement speaks to the fact that sometimes the church can continue to tell the youth they are the next generation while still holding onto power and wanting young people to conform to the systems in place. This premise allows us to walk alongside young people by sharing power and amplifying their voices and gifts to be partners in reaching this generation. Although many questions remain unanswered, I am still excited about what youth ministry can and will become. 


Thomas Brackeen is a servant leader who has over 28 years of experience working with youth and young adults in the DC area through PG Parks and Recreation, coaching in various basketball leagues, and serving at different churches in the DC Metro area. He is also the founder of Keep It Real Fridays, a platform that was designed as a safe space for youth and young adults to express their authentic voice through the creative arts and receive spiritual encouragement. His mission is to empower young people and the leaders who serve them to make an impact in this world.

He is affectionately known to some of his peers as the “Youth Pastors’ Pastor as he has dedicated a portion of his life to mentoring, coaching, and systems thinking for youth and young adult ministry. He fulfills these roles various national youth ministry organizations and through his newly started business TBJ Enterprises, LLC.

Professionally he works in his current role as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lead at The Nature Conservancy, where he has worked for the past ten years. He works in Philanthropy Leadership and across the organization to develop systems thinking and change management strategies. These strategies are focused on hiring & recruiting policies, engaging a diverse nontraditional donor base, discrimination & harassment prevention, and enhancing inclusivity within work culture.

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